Uruguay Parliament poised for historic vote on recreational marijuana legalization under government control.
Often dubbed the Switzerland of Latin America, Uruguay is a tiny country of 3.3 million inhabitants located on the Atlantic coast on the Southern border of Brazil and separated from Argentina by the estuary of the Río de la Plata.
Faced by an invasion of cocaine paste from neighboring Colombia, sleepy Uruguay was propelled to the global headlines on June 20, 2012 when Uruguayan President José Mujica and his government announced their intent to submit a proposal for marijuana legalization under governmental control. Possession and use of marijuana is already legal in Uruguay. Thus was launched a year-long nationwide debate that seems poised to conclude on July 31, when the marijuana legalization proposal will be submitted to a vote in the Uruguayan parliament.
The proposal was originally scheduled for a December 2012 vote, but President Mujica decided to postpone it for lack of popular support even though his government coalition enjoys a comfortable majority. With polls showing public support for legalization stuck in the low 30s, Mujica decided instead to launch an extensive national debate where opponents and supporters of the initiative could freely explain their arguments to the public. In a remarkable lesson in genuine democracy that we wish more governments would emulate, Mújica declared back then: “Don’t vote on a law because you have majority in parliament. Support has to come from the streets.”
But Mújica is not quite your average president either, being more like the Nelson Mandela of Latin America. A former Tupamaros guerrilla leader during the brutal Uruguayan military dictatorship in the 1970s, Mujica was shot by the police six times and served 14 years in prison, including over two years in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well. Known for his humility and kindness, Mujica gives to charity 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary, and shunned the presidential palace, its pump and its armored limousines to live in his modest ranch with his wife, commuting in his old Volkswagen beetle.
Early this week, the Uruguayan initiative received the informal blessing of José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS regroups all 35 independent states of the Americas, with the domineering and often resented presence of the US, the Northerly Big Brother. Insulza was on a two days visit to introduce the recently published report on drug consumption in the Americas, prepared by the OAS as a mandate of the Sixth Summit of the Americas. The report favors drug decriminalization of marijuana and other soft drugs, and advocates a broad debate about drug policy. Insulza emphasized that Uruguay is the first country where he is presenting the OAS report, saying “What better place to start than here, where there is already a debate.”
“Nearly half of all consumers of cocaine and opiates in the world live in our region, as well as a quarter of those who smoke marijuana,” declared Insulza, “this consumption has created an illegal business that threatens the integrity of our institutions… The number of deaths caused by drug consumption seem minimal when compared with the deaths caused by drug-related criminal activity.“
Insulza praised the efforts of the Government of Uruguay: “I would like to publicly recognize the responsible and serious manner in which the Uruguayan State and civil society are addressing the project presented by the government on the production, sale and use of marijuana in this country.” And concluded: “Uruguay’s experience is being watched with great attention by the rest of the Hemisphere and we are convinced that whatever the outcome of this process, we can all draw important lessons from it.”
If adopted on July 31, as now seems likely, Uruguay will become the first country in the world to establish a controlled marketplace for marijuana, which would be a major breakthrough and would break a taboo, challenge international laws, and set a precedent. Uruguay has also been debating cultivation for personal use for over two year. The approval of both measures would be a giant step forward.
Author of “World War D – The Case against prohibitionism, roadmap to controlled re-legalization”
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